How do we decide what our transport policy should be asks Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.
There’s been one flagship policy leading the way in English transport policy in recent years - High Speed Two. Yet it is increasingly clear that HS2 not only should not be built, but will not be built.
When Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is reduced to writing in a whole column in the Observer proclaiming the benefits, it’s the equivalent to a football chairman swearing that he really has full confidence in his manager.
If the cancellation doesn’t come in this parliament, it is surely going to come at the start of a next when a (probably) new Chancellor takes a look at the books.
Lord Mandelson has drawn back the veil on Labour’s backing for HS2, admitting the decision was “partly politically driven”. He’s acknowledged that the Labour government did not consider alternative ways of spending £30bn.
That’s a truly astonishing confession. Yet there’s no evidence that the Tories, the original proponents of the scheme, considered the alternatives either.
Green Party Conference in February 2011 carefully considered the HS2 proposal, and came down firmly against it. Professor John Whitelegg said at that time that the proposals would serve neither social nor environmental justice. It’s good to see the others catching up in the conclusion.
It’s been left to an independent thinktank, the New Economics Foundation, to come up with a report proposing alternative ways of spending £33bn, demonstrating clearly that much quicker-to-deliver schemes would produce far higher economic and social returns.
The fact that it has got this far, and so much has been wasted on developing a clearly uneconomic project, is a symptom of a broader problem - that this government has failed to develop a plan for transport.
We were expecting a transport policy last September. We are still waiting.
On top of the HS2 debacle, the government is now talking about a £28bn road-building spree. Its ‘Action for Roads’ paper sets out plans including 221 extra lane miles of motorways. A massive bypass of the A14, is brought forward again, having been scrapped in 2010. That’s a U-turn on a U-turn, poor driving even by the coalition’s usual standards. And what we’re talking about are in many cases projects abandoned in the Eighties as uneconomic – now, when we’ve passed “peak car”, and the internet is changing the way many companies do business.
What we need are a set of criteria that answers the question “what is our transport spending, planning and organisation trying to achieve?”
A short answer: We need to get people around between homes, jobs, schools and leisure facilities in a way that fits with other social and environmental goals such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, human health, protection of valuable natural ecosystems and farmland, clean air and unblighted homes. (You can knock out Heathrow expansion on that last point, not to mention greenhouse gas emissions taking out any new airport in the South East.) And we need to encourage localised freighting of essential goods – food, clothing, building materials, and broader trade, national and international, of those products that it’s sensible to move further.
Transport policy needs to be integrated with other policies – industry and financial policies encouraging strong local economies that create jobs and business opportunities; housing policies not built on distant commuter suburbs on greenfield sites with two-or-more-car households.
The likely outcomes? A lot of infrastructure spending would go on rail, on the “Low Speed Ones” up and down the country, the lack of which is forcing people into their cars and preventing local movement of people and goods. Electrification of the Lowestoft-Norwich line, upgrading the Huddersfield to Sheffield route, restoring the Oxford to Cambridge line and other East-West links. These would be links between regions, or links within regions – not be focused on London.
More, we’d be restructuring the railways. Keeping the East Coast Mainline in public hands and returning all of the others into public ownership, as set out in Caroline Lucas’s private members bill now before the Commons. That would save at least £1.2 billion a year.
A lot more investment would go into cycling and walking. Twenty-four per cent of journeys by car are under two miles, 57% under five miles. Reshaping our streets to be people-friendly could greatly reduce those trips, encouraging more to walk and cycle, which would make them more people-friendly.
Before we even think about spending tens of billions of pounds on infrastructure that should be in use for a century or more, that will affect the lives of millions, that will have major economic impacts, it really isn’t too much to ask that decision making be based on evidence, subject to serious cost-benefit analysis and comparison with alternative spending options, and integrated with other policies. In short, to develop a transport plan.